Thursday, March 24, 2005

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN (AND AGAIN) or WHY CADDYSHACK II IS BETTER THAN YOU'VE BEEN LED TO BELIEVE

WARNING: Some major-league, big-time, movie-geek loving is about to commence. If you don't get off on reading about movies, this one might not be for you. But to paraphrase Martin Short as Ed Grimley, pondering the possibility of his idol, Pat Sajak, against all odds actually being an okay guy: "But then again, maybe it will be, it's hard to say..."

All those whiners and moaners who declare that Hollywood isn't making anything original anymore obviously haven't heard the news that a director for The Santa Clause III (starring Tim Allen) was just hired, that Saw 2 is on the way, that big screen versions of Baywatch and The Dukes of Hazzard and Bewitched are in the can (or almost there), that remakes of War of the Worlds, Death Race 2000 and Herbie The Love Bug are in the cards, that Final Destination III and X-Men III and Spider-Man III and Hellboy II and Batman Begins and Superman Returns are coming soon, or most importantly of all, that Miss Congeniality II: Armed and Fabulous is currently showing at a cinema near you (but not near me. Thank God).

Things are getting crazy. When for-the-love-of-god Miss Congeniality gets a sequel five years after its original release, something's out of whack.

(Full disclosure: I watched Miss Congeniality, in the theatre, yes, but I was in Japan and there was nothing else on, I swear, and I needed a touch of home, and William Shatner, proud Canadian that he is, was the closest thing I could find, and he was the best part of that movie, and so even though I guess by admitting that I paid money to see it, even if that money was Japanese yen, I thereby contributed to the profit margin that deemed a sequel feasible, it's still not right for the follow-up to be made, not proper, no, not sane.)

And this is coming from a guy who, as I've elaborated before in this humble little space, actually likes sequels.

The thing is, growing up, I watched a lot of episodic television, where you got to watch and grow with and even love the characters as they, and you, journeyed through life. (Yes, yes, I said 'love'. I'm not saying I 'loved' Nell Carter on Gimme a Break or Natalie on The Facts of Life or Lee Majors on The Fall Guy or Mr.Drummond on Diff'rent Strokes or DaisyDuke on The Dukes of Hazzard or the brown haired girl on Silver Spoons or -- wait a minute. I guess I am saying that. Kids love stupid things, right, like the sound of farts and the taste of Pez, so I'll admit it, I loved them all, those second-rate actors on those admittedly-lame sitcoms, but they were my childhood, and they made me laugh, and if that's not a recipe for love, what is?)

Movies, though were altogether bigger, grander, with more depth and power and bravado. Seeing a sequel, two, three, five years after the original was an affirmation of sorts, a twisted acknowledgement that the elements that we loved and cherished in the first films were not isolated at all, that they continued, they endured, they twisted and moved and aged but still retained their authentic, orginal ability to sneak into our hearts. (A childish romanticism, sure, but I actively seek to hold on to that which once moved me, fearing what will happen if I let such fundamentally silly notions go free, fearing who I might become, jaded and cynical and crusty.)

I should also add that I abhor the act of giving sequels plain old numbers: 2, 3, 4, etc. Back in the day, when there was a sequel, it was given a roman number, for chrissakes, a II or III or IV. It gave sequels a certain dignity, a certain link to the past, as if they were but mere chapters in a larger, denser story. So I'm classifying all sequels with a roman numeral, regardless of how they appeared when they first came out. Cuz I'm a weird guy that thinks about this stuff.

And so, in that spirit, which only a ten year old waiting with something approaching delight bordering on awe for the lights to go down before the show begins can truly appreciate, I appeal to you to search for that child within yourselves, however deeply buried he/she may be. Ladies and gentlemen, I now present the good sequels:

1) French Connection II -- great. One of Hackman's best performances ever. If Robert Redford's The Candidate has the best final line ever, French Connection II has one of the the greatest final shots ever -- not visually or stylistically all that impressive, no, but it rocks the house simply for the clear and present punctuation point it provides for the series. For its finality, brevity, simplicity, this can't be beat.

2) Back to the Future II and III -- wonderful, convoluted mind-warps. Touching and silly. I was so excited when Back to the Future II came out I couldn't eat or sleep, that's how much I'd been waiting for it. And me and my friends Eric and Steve loved it so much that we couldn't contain ourselves in the parking lot of the Pendale Cinemas when it was all over, so excited that there was a Part III on the way.

3) The Godfather II and III -- exceptional. Landmark. Everything movies should be. (Yes, even the third one. I'll defend it to my grave as a fantastic coda, or epilogue, to the first two films, which are, hands down, the two best films of the last thirty years, with Apocalypse Now running a close third, which means Coppola is the man, even still, even now, despite his daughter's success. And it was while watching the new version of Apocalypse Now in the theatres in Japan a few years back that I had an epiphany during Robert Duvall's famous "I love the smell of napalm in the morning"speech. During that scene, as he spoke, I had thought something I had never, ever thought before during a movie: This is one of the greatest moments ever put to film. The juxtaposition of words and image, of the beauty of what he was feeling and the horror of what he was saying, the madness of war personified in the grace and wretchedness of this soldier -- it's cinema, that's all. Whatever cinema can or should do, whatever dialogue should or can be, whatever thematic resonance can or may be highlighted, it's all there, in that scene. You can't get better. You can't.)

4) The Two Jakes, the sequel to Chinatown -- Intricate and involving. I still haven't figured out what all went down, and yes, you won't understand anything that happens in the movie unless you watch Chinatown, like, immediately before watching this one, that's how much it relies on the first one, but still. Jack Nicholson directed this one, and he proved he can direct; I wish he'd direct more.

5) Rocky II -- "the sweatiest movie ever made" according the folks on Cheers. And the best of the four sequels.

6) More American Graffitti -- flawed but original. (Does the word 'graffitti' have two effs and two eyes? Or even two tees? Not sure about that one.) I bet that you didn't even know that there was a sequel, did you? Now, the first one is probably the one movie in the history of cinema that really, truly doesn't need a sequel, but the thing was, Lucas had promised Universal another film, and after the success of Star Wars, the studio said hey, we want that film to be a sequel to the first Graffitti, the idea of which Lucas hated, but he said all right, f--ck it, we'll do a sequel. Hired some guy named B.W.Norton, and the film takes place on New Year's Eve at various points in time over the span of five years, and it features most of the original cast, even Harrison Ford (but sorely missing Richard Dreyfuss), along with a lot of experimental, split-screen type effects, the last gasp of alternative seventies filmmaking, you could say, and while I can't say it's a really good movie, it's different, it's honest, it attempted to do something, if not fresh, at least unstale.

And now, sequels I would never, ever publicly admit to liking (except for here, on a blog nobody reads, although I realize that these may be held against me in a future cinematic court of law):

1) Caddyshack II -- Jackie Mason is an amiable replacement for Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Stack does stuffy like noone else, Dan Ackroyd does a suitably odd offshoot of Bill Murray's character from the first one and Chevy Chase is at his supreme level of cheviness. What's not to like?

2) National Lampoon's European Vacation -- More classic Chevy. Highly underrated.

3) Police Academy IV: Citizens on Patrol -- Good comedic work from Guttenberg. His swan song to the series.

4) Rocky IV -- As a die-hard Rocky fan, I loved the fourth installment as a kid and hated it as a teenager, coming to think that it violated the simplicity of the original, but now I see it as the ultimate '80's amplification of the Cold War, the Rocky mythos stripped down to its comic-book ethos, then pumped up and overblown to exaggerated, kinetic effect, with Stallone as a director being the MTV Michael Bay of the '90's, a style abandoned for Rocky V, which brought us (more or less successfully) back to the grittiness of the original.

5) The Karate Kid III -- Daniel and Mr.Miyagi's relationship matures. The story's stupid; their bond is touching.

6) Psycho III -- Anthony Perkins' directorial debut, and a violent, creepy, dread-inducing little film, much better than the second installment and light years ahead of the fourth one. Doesn't come anywhere near the original, of course, but it's tight and lean and actually adds some, dare I say it, touching insights into that great cinematic character, Norman Bates.

7) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier -- Canadian legend William Shatner's directorial debut, generally regarded as the worst in the series, but I think it's actually quite smart, funny and philosophically ambitious. Yes, the effects near the end suck, and the structure is a little wonky, but if you look at it as a big-screen version of one of the original episodes, you might like it.

8) Halloween II and V -- The original is, hands down, the scariest flick I think I've ever seen, next to the original Exorcist (which operates on its own, heightened level of cinematic greatness). The second one picks up, literally, at the end of the first one (like Rocky II and Back to the Future III and III), and the plot is, well, Michael Myers killing some more. (When SNL's Mike Myers, Canada's golden boy, hit it big, I said: "Hey, he stole the Halloween guy's name!" Cuz that's the kind of kid I was...) The thing is, the first one and the second one all take place during the same night. That's a hell of a long night. The gore is more, the suspense a little less, but Donald Pleasance is fantastic, as always, and it still does an admirable job of plucking our universal fears. The fifth one I included just because, by rights, there's now way this movie should be any good -- but it has a genuinely freaky-deaky, cliffhanger ending. I never saw Part III, or part VIII.

9) Superman IV: The Quest For Peace -- This movie was butchered in the editing room after disastrous test screenings, as they cut over forty-five minutes out of the flick. In the original version there were actually two Nuclear Mans, not just one. You're shocked, I realize this. (I know what was cut out because I read the comic book version as a kid, in addition to the novelization. Yes, I was a geek.) But actually, if you watch it again with a somewhat open mind, it's not half bad. Similar to Star Trek V, it kind of feels like one of the old Superman comics you'd pick up in the quarter bin at the comic book shop on rainy Saturday afternoon. Reeve is great as always as Superman, and Hackman as Lex Luthor is, well, Hackman -- fantastic, as always. There are some nice bits with Clark and Lois, with scenes that are, dare I say it, charming. At ninety minutes the film is ridiculously short, and the final twenty minutes of the movie don't make much sense at all, and the special effects aren't that great, but it's a Superman movie goddamnit; my childhood self demands I at least like it. And I do.

(I was going to go on and defend Superman III, as it's one of my favorite movies, ever, but I don't have the energy, and I've defended it before. And let me just say that while I'm looking forward to Bryan Singer's new Superman movie due out next year, with the unknown Brandon Routh in the title role and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, the original films will always be, well, sacrosanct. The canon. The link to my childhood. So they could just release all four back on the big screen for a week or two and I'd be happy.)


Hmmmmm...

By this point, you've either been a) nodding your head in appreciation and interest, as you, too, have seen more movies than is humanly healthy or b) you are thinking I've completely lost my fu--ing mind, and are wondering how I ever made it out of high school. (I wonder that sometimes, too.)

But, we are what we are.

And I've just realized something.

This post was supposed to be about the moral bankruptcy of most sequels, but I must admit, based on the above evidence, that I like a hell of a lot of those that have been made. Even the bad ones. Which means that, even with a degree in Creative Writing (it is too a real degree, I swear), umpteen university Literature classes, four years in Japan and two years in Cambodia, I'm not as worldly and sophisticated as I'd assumed.

Still.

Was there really, really that much of a demand for a Miss Congeniality II?

(Oh, as I've mentioned before, I watched Ocean's 12 on DVD here, and I couldn't understand what happened. Didn't get the twist at the end, the whole heist-explanation thingee. I'm readily admitting that. I'm chalking it up to the fact that the copy I saw had French titles, so I wasn't sure what was happening on what day in the film. That's my excuse, rather than just admitting I wasn't bright enough to follow what was going on.)

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